My son has always, since birth, been difficult to feed. When we hit solid food stage, it wasn’t different. In fact, after we conquered purees (months after most children) he didn’t want to get off purees and he ate pureed food longer than most kids. Once he started eating table food, we learned he didn’t like meat and he didn’t like bread. He’s hesitant to try anything new. And by hesitant, I mean he locks his mouth up like Fort Knox. He means business.
So you combine his new found toddler independence stage (he’s 2 1/2) with his previous “I hate most food stage” and you’ve got the perfect combination for a frustrated, tired, and worried mom. I found myself getting increasingly frustrated and tired at spending so much time and effort on preparing a healthy meal only to have it tossed (literally) to the ground by a battling toddler. I actually recall being on my hands and knees on the kitchen floor cleaning up his mess and crying. My son was eating nothing and I felt like a failure. So I read all the advice I found and I’ve read lots of advice, and I haven’t found a lot of things that work with the in between kid stage, namely age 1 to whenever your kid can be reasoned with. The advice to encourage your kid to take one bite, won’t work with my kid. Have your kid help prepare the meal, great advice, but it doesn’t work for toddlers. My favorite advice says to make the food fun to eat. When I read this advice, I thought this might be something I could work with. But their advice required hours of turning olives into penguins and carrots into swords. Yeah, right.
I’m no expert (is anyone?) and we continue to have daily battles, but here are some tips that have worked with my VERY picky toddler to not only EAT but to eat nutritious foods.
- Offer him a staple (something you KNOW they like and have eaten in the past) at every meal. And offer something new. I make sure I offer one his “staples”, in a form he likes, at every sitting. Does it get old? Yes. Does he eat? Yes. And that’s what I’m going for. At least I know he’s eating SOMETHING and I can feel okay with him going to bed without starving.
- Offer a staple in a form he likes and in a new presentation. I don’t do this every meal, but every few days, I might offer him steamed green beans (a staple) and sauteed green with lemon juice (a new presentation). I do this when it’s easy for me to do. If I’m making green beans for the meal, I might simply take a few out before seasoning them so I have some he likes before I give him more. But say your kid doesn’t like green beans, that’s okay, maybe try a cracker (a staple) and a cracker with a sliced tomato and salt and pepper on top (a new presentation). Maybe they’ll eat it, maybe they won’t, but you’re exposing them to something new with something familiar.
Or, for example, serve couscous. My son loves rice, so I started expanding it and showing him other forms of pasta and grains that look similar, but they’re slightly different. We make couscous, quinoa, etc. Or we serve thick spaghetti noodles, angel hair, penne, etc. The goal is to get them to slowly progress their palate.
- Make eating fun. I’m not very good at this, but my husband is. Remember as babies you might have done the airplane with the spoon landing in their mouth? And then once they could hold their own spoon, it seems like all the fun went away? That happened at our house. At dinner one evening, Miles was having his usual “I don’t want to eat anything you offer me” whine. My husband took a toothpick and put it in his veggie, showing him to eat it off the toothpick, and a new fun technique of eating took place. Miles loved it and ate a lot of his meal.
My son loves to count, he loves shapes, trucks and letters. So I try to incorporate some of those things into how I prepare food (perhaps I start telling him about the shape of the carrot, or I might specifically buy pasta that’s circle or square). It requires actively using my imagination, but it helps him to be more familiar with what he’s eating.
- Include them in the conversation. My son is still not a conversationalist, but we talk to him constantly and encourage him to talk to us. It might not be the best political discussion at your dinner table, but you’re getting the concept going. And when they talk, they eat slower (meaning mealtime lasts longer), they’re not paying attention to all the things they DON’T want to eat. Instead they’re engaged and may even mindlessly and distractedly start eating what’s in front of them.
- Don’t worry about manners. This one might not be popular, but I know I have YEARS to harp on manners. My goal right now in this season of Miles’ life is to get nutritious foods into his body. My son is fairly well behaved at the dinner table. When he’s all done, that’s when he starts acting out. So while some people may say they need to learn to stay at the table until everyone is finished, I say phooey. They’re toddlers. They don’t have long attention spans. When they get older and more verbal (say preschool?) they’ll be more involved in the conversation and talking about their day, but when they’re done, let them go! Leave them with the impression that dinner was fun and they weren’t being held hostage. Kids want control. This is a small thing to let them have control over.
On this same concept, with a CLEAN table, of course, Miles might line up all his food (peas are his favorite to do this with) and eat them off the table. My son was eating peas (healthy) so I didn’t chide him for eating of the table, instead I counted them with him, laughed when he chewed them up, and cheered him a long. He ate a ton of peas that night followed by whole wheat pasta. Three bowls. (A HUGE accomplishment for my picky toddler, who eats like a bird most days).
- Serve it up in different ways. I was being lazy one day and I put green beans in a colander on the table. My son thought that was the funniest thing ever and ate the whole thing. Yes, all of the green beans. So now, sometimes I serve dinner in the colander. Or I might buy a new plastic bowl from the dollar store in a really bright color of his choosing. Just make it different from the everyday. One mom I talked to said sometimes she set the dinner table all nice with candles and place settings. I’m not sure this would work for toddlers, but it most certainly would work with older kids. The concept is, meal time is different and exciting.
- Offer healthy snacks. Somehow in our house, snack time started to mean cracker time. But crackers aren’t the most nutritious. So I started offering cheese and grapes on a platter (or an ice cube tray if I’m feeling wild that day). Over time, I reduced the amount of crackers I offered and amazingly, Miles increased the amount of cheese and grapes he ate. Then I decreased the amount of cheese and he increased the amount of grapes. For a snack I might offer edamame, or a green smoothie (see below). Or sometimes I still might just offer crackers. The point is I work to make snack time a healthier time too. Which, of course, doesn’t mean he’ll never eat a cracker again, it just means aI offer a larger variety of healthier foods more often.
- Make use of purees. My son has a texture problem. If yours does too, I highly suggest giving them pureed pouches for snacks. (Yes, like for babies.) Earth’s Best has a great line of them here. My son doesn’t eat these every day, but on days that he’s refusing to eat, I might offer him one while he’s playing so that I know SOMETHING is getting in him.
- Along the same lines, give them juice! And by juice I mean juice your own apples and carrots and whatever fancies you. Miles loves his homemade juices. Or make a green smoothie. Packed with so much fruit, they won’t notice that there’s kale or spinach in it. If those are a little too domestic for you, or you just don’t have time, make use of your refrigerated sections. Odwalla (Miles loves Superfood and Mango) and Bolthouse Farms (our favorite is Green Goodness, we buy it every week and my son calls it green juice).
- Relax. I have stopped worrying about what my son eats in any given day. Some days he eats practically nothing. He just doesn’t want it. But then some days he eats like a horse, a hungry hungry horse. Look at what your child eats over a period of a few days, or even a week, and I’d be willing to bet they eat more variety than you might think. I know I want my son to have a healthy adulthood and not be saddled with diseases and obesity. To do that, I simply need to make sure I model good behavior, offer healthy choices, and let his body tell him what he needs when he needs it. This advice certainly is easier said than done, and I worry frequently, but let’s just relax and trust ourselves!